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Panelists at the United Way of Central Maryland and Woman's Leadership Council's Woman Forum on The Need:Communites in Crisis: From Left, Stacey Stewart, Moderator, U.S. President, United Way Worldwide; Heather Sheridan, Director of Homeless Services for Maryland's Department of Human Resourses; Holly Freishtat, Baltimore City's First Food Policy Dierctor; and Paula Singer, Cheif Network Officer of Laureate Education and CEO of Laureate Global Products and Services. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

United Way women’s forum focuses on social issues

Social issues like public health and access to education can only be addressed if members of diverse sectors of the community come together, speakers at a forum of women business and community leaders said Wednesday.

That was the central message of United Way of Central Maryland’s first Women’s Leadership Council Forum, which focused on ways to make progress in such areas as financial stability and homelessness. The event in Baltimore Wednesday brought together about 400 attendees on the 15th anniversary of the Women’s Leadership Council’s local chapter, made up of a group of women philanthropists and advocates.

Many of the most pervasive social issues disproportionately impact families, and are therefore of special interest to women, several panelists at the forum said.

“We as women bring a very unique perspective to our work, it doesn’t matter what we do,” said Stacey Stewart, U.S. president of United Way and the moderator of a panel on community needs. “The perspective I bring as a woman, as a mother, leading this network of 1,200 United Ways around the country, that perspective on how United Way makes a difference in the lives of families and children hopefully adds value to all the work we do.”

But in order for women to ensure their perspective is taken seriously, said keynote speaker Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC’s Morning Joe news program and author of a book called “Knowing Your Value: Women, Money and Getting What You’re Worth,” women first have to learn to negotiate with confidence.

“You can help more people if you increase your value,” Brzezinski said. “You’ve got to be really confident and clear and effective about how you communicate your value. This is the one area where I think we all still struggle.”

Targeting the issues

United Way’s programs are geared toward fighting poverty, such as the “snowball effect” that can lead to homelessness for low-income families, speakers at the forum said. For those who are working at low- or minimum wage jobs, one extra expense can quickly lead to a build-up of debt that makes paying the rent impossible.

In central Maryland, Stewart said, minimum wage workers have to work an average of 3.3 full-time minimum wage jobs to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

“When you’re required to earn three minimum wage incomes to afford housing, that’s just impossible,” said Heather Sheridan, director of homeless services for the Maryland Department of Human Resources and a panelist at the forum.

Other problems, such as poor mental or physical health, only pile onto the basic struggle of affording a place to live, she said.

“When you don’t have education or if you have experienced trauma, all of those things can completely skew your ability to stay above water,” Sheridan said.

United Way and other nonprofits and government programs have made strides in supporting those struggling with poverty, panelists at Wednesday’s event said, but it’s not enough to simply provide aid. Several speakers also highlighted the challenges facing women in professions like teaching, where those working in the classroom can see the effects of poverty every day.

For children whose families are struggling to make ends meet, lack of access to food and adequate housing can directly impact performance in school, said Paula Singer, chief network officer of Laureate Education and the chief executive officer of Laureate Global Products and Services. But by mentoring and supporting teachers, community leaders can help maximize the impact of time in the classroom.

“We have to find a way to elevate the teaching profession so that professional people really want to enter it,” Singer said. “The fundamental key to success in the classroom is the teacher.”

About Lauren Kirkwood

Lauren Kirkwood covers the business of law beat at The Daily Record.